As leaders, expectations are high. Team members depend on you for inspiration and guidance. Senior leaders look to you to perform and contribute. So you take everyone’s order and serve it up on a plate. Day in and day out, those revolving requests keep you on your toes and off balance until one day --- crash! Does that broken plate represent someone’s disappointment or your liberation from a task that was not fruitful? Let’s talk about priorities.
Setting priorities is essential to managing expectations and accomplishing tasks at the right time and in the right way. The ability to do so is critical to your development as a leader and the reputation you build as one.
Developing clear priorities for yourself and your direct reports starts by identifying what’s important. What needs to be done first and why? Does the outcome of that task impact other outcomes down the road? For example, if you rely on the relationships between your department and another to complete projects, one of your priorities might be to focus your team on building that relationship. Or, does your review of a report impact a team member’s ability to submit a work request? If so, that task may take precedent over another colleague’s request that is a “nice to have” but isn’t urgent. Congratulations, you’ve just gotten rid of a plate!
How to Set Priorities
It can be difficult to set priorities. At times, everything sounds important and you find yourself buckling under the pressure. You struggle to filter out the most urgent tasks and end up focusing on the easier ones that could have waited (that’s human nature, right?).
But give yourself a break. Understanding what’s important takes time and careful thought to develop. Often, it’s a team effort. One way to develop priorities that are clear, actionable and supported is to carve out time to create a draft list of priorities, then discuss them with others, perhaps your boss and peers, to be sure that you are in alignment with their priorities and the priorities of the organization. Negotiating priorities is a good way to get stronger buy-in and awareness in the organization.
Once you’ve identified a short list of what’s important, discuss this with your team and identify the “urgent” requests and fire drills that unnecessarily create more spinning plates that get in the way of being able to focus on the important priorities.
If your organization struggles with this, consider creating alignment meetings at the executive level or other conversations to calibrate and negotiate priorities to keep everyone focused on what is important right now, what might be changing, and where the executive team is either supporting or distracting the workforce. At the executive level, distractions and fire drills have impact on so many more people that deviating from what’s important becomes much more costly in time, energy, frustration and lack of execution.
At a personal level, creating your priorities and making sure that they are in alignment with your commitments as a leader will help you align your team and reduce your spinning plates to a manageable number. Decide what “urgent” activities you will not engage in, and have conversations with others who create them and make requests. Learn to ask for what you need and say “no” to things in a way that supports the relationship with others and also makes your priorities clear.
Keep this in mind.
Keeping multiple plates spinning is possible, as long as you know that the plates that are spinning are the important ones, and you have clear understanding and buy-in from others. Limit your plates and you will be much more successful in executing on the commitments that you’ve made and the priorities of the organization.